Clemens portrait

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With graphics from the collection of
Dave Thomson

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April - May 1882

In April and May 1882 Clemens revisited the Mississippi River to gather information, facts and thoughts for a book that would be titled Life on the Mississippi. Clemens wrote:

After twenty-one years' absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left; so I resolved to go out there. I enlisted a poet for company, and a stenographer to 'take him down,' and started westward about the middle of April.
- Life on the Mississippi

Clemens was recognized on some of the boats on which he traveled and some of their pilot's offered him a turn at the wheel. The boats Clemens traveled on are described below. Also see:

During his tour around the world in 1895, Clemens delivered at least one speech in Australia recalling his 1882 tour. (See the text of the Yorick Club speech available at this site.)

Steamboat: GOLD DUST
Clemens as passenger: 20 - 25 April 1882
Pilot: Lem Gray
Captain: John T. McCord
Second Mate: "Dad" Dunham
Fate: lost in explosion at Hickman, KY on 7 August 1882 with loss of 17 lives.
Clemens wrote about the explosion and loss of the GOLD DUST in Chapter 37 of Life on the Mississippi
According to Clemens, Pilot Lem Gray died of his injuries.

Clemens' comments: I take a trick at the wheel occasionally, & find the mechanical work of steering a steamboat as familiar as if I had never ceased from it.
- Letter to Olivia Clemens, 22 April 1882 reprinted in The Love Letters of Mark Twain

When we got down below Cairo, and there was a big, full river--for it was high-water season and there was no danger of the boat hitting anything so long as she kept in the river--I had her most of the time on his [Lem Gray's] watch. He would lie down and sleep, and leave me there to dream that the years had not slipped away; that there had been no war, no mining days, no literary adventures; that I was still a pilot, happy and care-free as I had been twenty years before.
- quote in Mark Twain, A Biography, Albert B. Paine

Built: 1873
Clemens as passenger: 26 - 28 April 1882
Fate: burned while laid up at the foot of Niagara Street in Cincinnati 4 December 1886

Steamboat Charles Morgan
Photo courtesy of Ralph DuPae, Murphy Library


Clemens as passenger: 6 - 12 May 1882
Pilot: Horace Bixby
Fate: 12 December 1890 snagged and sunk at Hermitage, Louisiana

SS Baton Rouge
photo from the Dave Thomson collection

Clemens' comments: May 8--Got up at 4 A.M. in a roasting-room--some idiot had closed the transoms & I was over the boilers--& went on watch. Fog--Geo. Ritchie steered the watch out by compass, using his & Bixby's patented chart for the crossings & occasionally blowing the whistle. The chart is a great thing--many pilots use it, now.
- Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. II, 1877-1883

On this leg of the trip Clemens spotted another steamboat which bore his name, the Mark Twain. Recalling the incident, he wrote:

Far along in the day we saw one steamboat; just one, and no more. She was lying at rest in the shade, within the wooded mouth of the Obion River. The spy-glass revealed the fact that she was named for me - or he was named for me, whichever you prefer. As this was the first time I had ever encountered this species of honor, it seems excusable to mention it, and at the same time call the attention of the authorities to the tardiness of my recognition of it.
- Life on the Mississippi

Mark Twain bill of lading

Bill of lading from steamer MARK TWAIN from the Kevin Mac Donnell collection.
According to Mac Donnell, the MARK TWAIN
was a 70 ton wooden hull sternwheel packet ship first put in service in 1872 at Jeffersonville, Indiana. From 1877 to 1882, the boat operated out of Memphis under Captain W. P. Hall whose name appears in this masthead.

Steamboat: GEM CITY
Built: 1881
Clemens as passenger:
13- 14 May 1882
Fate: burned at the foot of Barton Street, St. Louis 22 September 1883

Steamboat GEM CITY

Clemens' comments: I couldn't sleep in 46--hog chain making intermittent thumping noise. Moved to 58 but no use. Got up at 2.30 & went on watch below draw of Louisiana bridge.
- Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. II, 1877-1883

Clemens as passenger:
17- 21 May 1882

Photo courtesy of Ralph DuPae, Murphy Library

Clemens' comments: 8 years ago boats like the Minneapolis used to go into St. Paul with 150 people. Man used to say "Got 28 cars of wheat, Captain."
"I'll take 2 of 'em."
Now the Captain inquires "What you got for us?" "Nuth'n."
The RR has done it.
- Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. II, 1877-1883
SS Minneapolis Cabin

Interior cabin of the Minneapolis.
Photo from the Dave Thomson collection.

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